Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Does Incarceration Reduce Crime?

The expansion of the prison population resulting from three-strikes sentencing—mandatory minimums—obviously reduced crime, as is obvious to correctional, prosecutorial, and law enforcement professionals; however, many academics and public policy commentators still resist the obvious, as does a recent article in the Sacramento Bee.

The result of research examining the crime reduction in the 1990’s, from the book Why Crime Rates Fell, concludes that: “the expansion in the prison population did contribute in an important way to the reduction of crime rates in the 1990’s” (p. 98)

An excerpt from the Bee article.

“Imagine you decided to draw a bath, turned on the water, and then left the room to answer the phone. When you returned five minutes later the tub was overflowing. What would you do first? “Turn off the water streaming into the bath or open the drain a crack? Of course, you'd turn off the water to stop the flooding from getting worse.

“Now, imagine a corrections system overflowing with prisoners. How much good is releasing prisoners early without doing something to slow down the flood of people entering the system?

“This scenario describes the problem and choice confronting California. Laws requiring lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent offenders, and mindless minimum sentences imposed under the state's "two-strikes" and "three-strikes" laws, have contributed to an overcrowded prison system. Confronted by a court order to reduce its prison population and a budget crisis requiring steep spending cuts across the board, California has made the mistake of opening the drain a crack while leaving the spigot wide open.

“A new state law will provide for the release of approximately 6,500 prisoners over the next year. Local officials must recalculate how they plan to shorten sentences for good behavior and other credits. These recalculations will lead the state to release eligible offenders early. Offenders convicted of serious, violent or sex crimes are not eligible. The measure will purportedly save the state more than $100 million.

“California's secretary of corrections called the law a "win-win situation" because it will cut down on recidivism and allow parole agents to focus attention on more-dangerous former convicts. Sentencing-reform advocates, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonpartisan advocacy group that opposes one-size-fits-all sentencing laws, could only shake their heads at such a statement.

“If the secretary is right, then why were these 6,500 people sentenced to such long terms in the first place? Wouldn't it make more sense to assess risk and recidivism factors and make those part of the sentencing calculation? Unfortunately, California's mandatory-sentencing laws prohibit such sensible reckoning.

“Mandatory minimums in California, as elsewhere, impose mandatory prison time on offenders who might be better served by shorter sentences, drug treatment or other graduated sanctions.

“There are more than 41,000 prisoners serving time under California's "two-strikes" and "three-strikes" laws; two-thirds of whom did not commit crimes against people. Many are housed in maximum-security prisons that cost taxpayers an average of $31,000 per prisoner per year. It is these laws that created California's prison morass and led to the current attempt to address it through the early expulsion of prisoners.”